Lots of humor against non-Americans in Funny People. Anyone else notice?

Posted on 06 August 2009 by HansKlopek

So I checked out Funny People over the weekend and I’m sad to report that I was uber-disappointed by it. I didn’t find it all that funny and have to agree with my friend Shep’s sentiments that it was kind of an unbelievable mess. Too long with too much happening. Comedy works better in shorter bursts, even though you can mark down The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, Judd Apatow’s first two directorial efforts,  as exceptions to that very shaky rule.

fpposterI wasn’t terribly surprised by my disappointment, though. Apatow’s first two films were so good that he was bound to strike out sooner or later, and even though Funny People (here comes the one obvious riff on the film’s title that I will allow myself) isn’t all that funny, it has a lot of ambition and is obviously made by a director with something very personal to say. I see in Apatow the spirit of a young James L. Brooks, someone who can bring manic comic energy to sometimes weepy subject matter.

But I won’t bore you with a straight-up review of the film. I didn’t feel that passionately about it one way or another. I was kind of expecting for it to fall short, it did, and I won’t see it again. Pay for your ticket, take your chance. Also, I also have a hard time hating a movie where the biggest problem is that it is simply trying to do too much. Most movies don’t try to do much at all except exploit the low standards of their audiences. There was only one thing about the film that I thought of as truly noteworthy, and it’s something that I haven’t seen any critics remark about.

Is it strange to anyone else that two of the big, trailer-worthy comic bits in the film involve one character making fun of another character’s foreign accent? The first scene happens in the doctor’s office where George Simmons (Adam Sandler), accompanied by his man servant, Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), are met by a German physician (Torsen Vorges) possessing a rather thick accent. The doctor informs Simmons of the progress of his disease and doesn’t deliver the happiest of news. Simmons has already been told he will most likely die, and this visit seems to be routine. I’m honestly not sure why it even needs to be in the movie. The only true purpose it serves is to allow Simmons and Wright to make very cruel fun of the doctor’s accent with gems like “are you angry that you died at the end of Die Hard?”

It’s kind of a fucked up scene. Moments of it popped up in the film’s trailer and the T.V. spots, but I was expecting the Die Hard-reference to provide a button for the scene. Cut, print, move on. But Apatow, Sandler and Rogen spin the scene into a five minute comic line-o-rama as they get their rocks off insulting this poor guy. We get one line after another and the doctor has to announce at a certain point “I’m getting kind of annoyed by your little joke.” I think the scene is a poor reflection on the film’s humor but also a poor reflection on the audience around me that were laughing as if the scene were the funniest thing in the world. I guess cultural insensitivity is really funny as long as some imaginary person is perpetrating it.

I can’t say I’m surprised that this scene popped up in a movie with Adam Sandler as the lead, though. Anyone who hasRogen and Sandler seen Big Daddy knows that he enjoys playing a violent sociopath disguised a cuddly average Joe. Maybe the audience expects this type of cruelty from Sandler and that’s why it isn’t greeted with the kind of dismay that it should be. It surprised me mainly because Judd Apatow, whether it’s in the comedies he produces or directs, never really goes to these places. His humor tends to float nicely in the innocuously irreverent vein where guys talk about their dicks a lot. Funny People has that type of humor (it isn’t very funny, but it is still there) but it also has this darker type. After the doctor’s office scene, I hoped that this cruel riff had come from Sandler’s influence and tried to get back into the movie, which I thought could still redeem itself.

The second scene of accent-fueled humor comes in the confrontation between Laura (Leslie Mann) and her Australian husband, Clarke (Eric Bana). George has been told by the Alan Rickman-sounding doctor (hoho) that he has beaten his disease (I’m not spoiling anything, the trailer tells you this much). Laura is the girl he was in love with years ago but let get away by being an unfaithful asshole (he hasn’t changed much and doesn’t by the end of the movie). He and Ira make a trip to her place in Northern California to hang out for the day.

To make a very long, very fucking convoluted story short, Clarke, who was supposed to be off on a business trip, comes home. It has been revealed that Clarke has cheated on her at some point in the past, which is supposed to make us hate him with a passion. Laura has just cheated on him with George though, and since two wrongs make a right and everything, Apatow maintains that the audience should stay unreservedly against Clarke.

bana with the boysI kind of liked Clarke. It is below Eric Bana to have to play a one dimensional comic villain, and he refuses to do so, emerging with a character who seems good natured enough, if slightly arrogant. But Apatow’s whole story hangs on us not liking him and siding with George and Laura. He hammers this home during the movie’s other big trailer-worthy comic moment where Laura makes fun of his Australian accent. When I saw this in the trailer, I was expecting Clarke to be a little bit more of an overt asshole. By the extremely well-calculated rules of comedy,  making fun of an overt asshole is funny. When you are making fun of a nice guy though, it is just mean.

And, like in the doctor’s office, the scene goes on forever, isn’t very funny, but was still beloved by the audience I was with. Maybe people just pay their money for a comedy and if they aren’t laughing, they feel stupid for having gone at all. People like to laugh and in the absence of something truly funny, something with all of funny’s telltale signs will do. One of the reasons why this scene just doesn’t work is because its just obvious. Giving a character a funny accent and then making fun of them for having it doesn’t require a lot of comic ingenuity. I know Judd Apatow is funnier than xenophobic humor.                           

5 Comments For This Post

  1. ParryOtter Says:

    I couldn’t (respectfully) disagree more. ;-)

    While I thought the scene in the doctor’s office was definitely cringe-inducing, I think that was exactly the point. Most of us reacted the same way we did when George would throw a particularly cutting jab at Ira- we may have chuckled or smiled for a bit, as Ira does, but then we get to that “hey, cut it out, man” stage. To actually *feel* my smile slide off my face was very powerful…it made me realize even moreso how cruelty and insecurity often lurk behind humor that may appear amiable. While I might have laughed at one or two of the jokes, like the doctor did, there comes a point where the humor changes into something so sad and telling about George’s character and our feelings change as an audience. We feel awkward, ashamed, and pitying. (And probably a little annoyed that he can’t just STOP making jokes.)

    As for Clarke, I really liked him by the end and I think most people probably did too. I think the accent-related humor was just an illustration of how the maturity and respect in the marriage had gone down the drain. If they can cheat on each other almost without batting an eye, why would they be able to talk to one another like civil adults? Psychologists always say that name-calling in a marriage (or any close relationship) is always a sign that things are running off the tracks. That’s what I saw here…they forgot how to “use their words” and ended up acting like two-year-olds. Like the stuff with George, it’s embarrassing to watch.

    I think in the end, all of this accomplished what Apatow wanted. We’re supposed to see the bitterness and cruelty lurking behind it all because if we didn’t, he might as well be condoning George’s actions or observing marital infidelity as just another thing to happen in life. Both are inexcusable and have severe effects on the character of the people involved, as well as those who have to watch.

  2. ShepRamsey Says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with Parry. In terms of the scene with the doctor, I don’t think Apatow would have allowed for the doctor to say “I’m getting kind of annoyed by this” if he just wanted the audience to get a cruel laugh out of it and nothing else. Also, you’ve got to realize what’s happening in the scene–the doctor is trying to talk to him seriously about his disease–something George is terrified of–and George would much rather make jokes at the expense of the doctor. It’s almost like he’s attacking him back for giving him bad news.

    And also, I feel like the fact that we like Clarke is exactly the point. As soon as we meet him–and like him–it instantly turns the tables on the entire situation between George and Laura. He’s there to be so much more than simply a “comic villain.” I think the fact that we DO like him makes it all the more interesting as a story, not to mention all the more telling about George and Laura as characters trying to (falsely) rationalize their own pent-up emotions. After their first dinner together, after we meet Clarke and see that he’s a charming and funny guy, George turns to Ira and says “I’m so much better than this guy.” And it’s so obvious that he’s not at all.

    Apatow isn’t asking us at any point to like or even condone George and his obnoxious behavior. He’s simply trying to understand him–his motivations and flaws and attitude–and he’s asking us to try and do the same.

  3. Shannon Says:

    Totally off topic, but I don’t see it reported anywhere on the site… Pretty sad film news: John Hughes just passed away. Saw the story here first: http://www.celebsession.com/2009/08/john-hughes-passed-away-this-morning.html

    It’s also on msnbc and some major news outlets

  4. Athena Says:

    I really liked Clarke, and I agree that his character was something more than just a foil to George.

    Well…maybe he was a foil, but is it possible that George was the bad guy in that scenario? Both George and Clarke cheated on Laura, but Clarke seemed genuinely devoted to change, where as George did not.

    Also, on a superficial level, he was incredibly sweet with the children. When he sees the kids and says, “Aw, how cute,” my heart kind of melted. And I freaking hate Eric Bana, so it took a lot for me to say that.

  5. HansKlopek Says:

    I love Eric Bana. Munich is one of my favorite movies (I wrote my freaking masters thesis on it) so it is really hard for me to accept Eric Bana as anything other than the hero. Made watching Star Trek a really weird experience.

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